Occupy Temple Trees: Sri Lankans revel in overrun presidential palace | Sri Lanka

It was once the palatial colonial-era home frequented only by Sri Lanka’s political elite. But by Sunday morning, Temple Trees, the formal residence of the country’s prime minister, was “open to the public”, according to a large sign graffitied at the entrance.

In the aftermath of the dramatic events of Saturday, when tens of thousands of anti-government protesters stormed the state residences of the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Temple Trees was among the political properties now defiantly occupied by ordinary Sri Lankans.

Rajapaksa and Wickremesinge both promised to resign on Saturday night amid mounting political pressure. However, protesters said they would continue to occupy their homes and offices until both leaders had officially left office. The whereabouts of the president remained unknown on Sunday, and he did not formally address the people or publish a letter of resignation.

Crowds tour the president's official residence a day after it was stormed
Crowds tour the president’s official residence a day after it was stormed. Photograph: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

By Sunday morning, Temple Trees had been converted into a museum for the Sri Lankan people and a community kitchen, serving up free hot meals. In scenes that would previously have been unthinkable, vats of dal and curry simmered on wood fires set up in the manicured garden. People from all walks of life milled freely around the marble corridors, having lunch, relaxing on the lawn and taking advantage of the well-equipped gym for a workout.

The official owner, Wickremesinghe, was nowhere to be seen, having been evacuated from the property the previous day. His private residence had been alight on Saturday night after the frustrations on the streets boiled over.

Soldiers and a heavy police presence remained deployed around Colombo, and many were still reeling from violent standoffs that occurred between security forces and protesters on Saturday night, in which dozens of people, including multiple journalists, were brutally beaten by police and hospitalised.

Sri Lanka protesters jump into president’s pool after storming palace in Colombo – video

Scenes at Rajapaksa’s official residence, which was occupied by the public on Saturday, remained jubilant. People continued to enjoy the luxury facilities, the comfortable beds and the well-stocked kitchen, though the outdoor swimming pool, which had been filled with protesters on Saturday, had turned murky and emptied of people.

Kumara, a 33-year-old government employee who was at the residence, told Reuters he was not moving until Rajapaksa stepped down. “I will continue to come here and I will continue to sleep here until he does,” he said.

Occupiers inside Temple Trees.
Occupiers inside Temple Trees. Photograph: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Though some damage had been done to the property, efforts were being made to keep the president’s house in good condition, with people seen sweeping the floors and watering the pot plants; handwritten warnings against any attempts to loot were posted up on the wall. Bundles of cash reportedly worth LKR 15 million foundstashed at the president’s house were counted and then handed over to security personnel.

Families could be seen taking curious tours around the luxury house and gardens. BM Chandrawathi, a 61-year-old handkerchief seller, sauntered into a first-floor bedroom accompanied by her daughter and grandchildren.

Sri Lankans take selfies inside the occupied presidential palace.
Sri Lankans take selfies inside the occupied presidential palace. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

“I’ve never seen a place like this in my life,” Chandrawathi told Reuters as she reclined on a plush sofa. “They enjoyed super luxury while we suffered. We were hoodwinked. I wanted my kids and grandkids to see the luxurious lifestyles they were enjoying.”

In videos shared on social media, protesters could be seen jokingly playing Rajapaksa’s campaign song, “The hero that works”, on the polished piano in his house, and staging a mock meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the long conference table in the president’s house.

Preparations to feed visitors and protesters at Temple Trees.
Preparations to feed visitors and protesters at Temple Trees. Photograph: Akila Jayawardana/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

Menus seized from the property also gave an insight into the culinary luxuries enjoyed by the president as two-thirds of Sri Lankans struggled to feed themselves due to the economic crisis. Lunch options recently enjoyed by the president included a roasted pumpkin soup starter followed by dishes including smoked salmon rosette, grilled lagoon prawns, marinated chicken with a demi-glace sauce, baked eggplant parmesan and hummus with pita bread.

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A celebratory party held by protesters who had overrun the president’s administrative offices in Colombo went on well into the early hours. By Sunday morning, it was decided the secretariat building would be opened up as a public library, and its corridors began to be filled with donated books.

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